29 November 2013

Alchemy: Not Just for Gold Diggers

Kathryn A. Kopple

In “The Fables of Midas,” a poem by Jonathan Swift, we are treated to a rollicking version in verse about a monarch who "[t]urn’d everything he touched to gold.”  As the story goes, Midas, a king of Phrygia, rescues a satyr by the name of Silenus.  For his kindness, the satyr grants him a single wish.  Lucky man!  But was he?  Without much thought, the king makes his now infamous request.  Swift takes no time in pointing out Midas’s foolishness.  A simple meal instantly becomes a hassle since all would fall apart and land “like spangles on the ground.”  A luscious “codling, ere it went his lips/Would straight become a golden pippin.”  Driven to desperation, the only way Midas has to fill his “empty paunch” is to “suck his victuals thro’ a quill.”  Swift’s Midas suffers from continual gastric distress considering that “[g]old ready coin’d appeare’d instead/of paltry provender and bread.”  The moral of the poem? Gold coveted to excess is excrement by another name.  To again quote Swift:  “.. gold defiles with frequent touch, /There's nothing fouls the hand so much.“

Midas is no doubt one of the most famous tales in Western culture of alchemy gone awry.  Aesop’s “The Goose that Laid the Golden Egg” also comes to mind.  Alchemy!  The mere mention of the word conjures spine-tingling images of cloaked figures peering at crumbling parchment, and certainly up to no good.  It is associated with the darkest forms of mischief performed by wizards, necromancers, cultists—and, before we forget, witches.  I mean, who are the “weird sisters” in Shakespeare’s Macbeth if not an unsavory lot, a trio of cauldron stirring alchemists? 

The question arises how did alchemy get such a bad reputation? How did alchemy, or chymia, become code for wickedness?    

 The origins of alchemy are blurry. Historians can’t seem to agree whether alchemy was first practiced in China, India, Egypt or Greece.  Greek cosmologists (5th and 6th century BC) contributed much to the alchemical knowledge, and are credited with helping to lay the groundwork of modern-day science.  Among them, Empedocles, who argued against the notion of a void, as it was irrational to think that something could come from nothing; instead, he was of the belief that that the external forms of things  existed in a state of flux (in relation to all living matter) whereas the primary elements (forces) of earth, air, water, and fire remained unchanged.  To this day, he is credited with the discovery of the invisible—or air as a substance.  Alchemy was later absorbed into medieval Judaism, Christianity and Islam as translations of ancient treatises became available, and new investigations and discoveries were made. 

 Alchemists were not then simply a meddlesome bunch who preyed on those who lusted after gold.  It is a tradition that embodies a number of practices:  philosophy, medicine, linguistics, translation, astrology,  as well as metallurgy.  Western culture remains deeply indebted to the likes of Abu Mūsā Jābir ibn Hayyān, Mary Prophetissa , the Pseudo Gerber (possibly Paul of Taranto), and many others.   Indeed, as you take your zinc this winter, you might remember the great proto-chemist Paracelsus, who gave the over-the-counter cold remedy its name.  



Kathryn A. Kopple is the author  Little Velásquez, a novel set in 15th century Spain.